BEIRUT — Thousands of Syrians rallied Thursday in Damascus in a display of loyalty to President Bashar Assad, waving flags under a slate gray sky to protest the anniversary of a rebellion that the government says is driven by terrorists, gangsters and extremists.
Outside the Syrian capital, however, tanks and snipers besieged opposition areas, including the southern city of Daraa where the uprising began a year ago, touched off by the arrest of a group of youths who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.
One year into the Syrian revolt, the fight to oust Assad is cascading toward civil war with more than 8,000 killed and no end in sight to the bloodshed. Worst-case scenarios are playing out in a country where many remain shackled by corruption, a suffocating security apparatus and a family dictatorship that rules over 22 million people.
"We know that this is a criminal regime, but we didn't expect it to reach this amount of killing," Amer Mattar, a 26-year-old activist, told The Associated Press from Jordan, where he fled to safety after being arrested twice in Syria.
Despite widening international condemnation and biting sanctions, Assad's regime has remained intact and intelligence analysts say the rebels have yet to pose a serious challenge to his powerful military.
Assad also has retained the support of many in Syria's business classes and minority communities, who worry they would lose protections under a new regime. Still others harbor an understandable fear of the unknown, given the rampant divisions within the opposition.
The threat of sectarianism is omnipresent. Assad has played on fears of sectarian strife — which were so destructive in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon — to persuade the public that protests will bring nothing but chaos.
Syria's regional allegiances to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah have raised fears of wider violence.
Western and Arab countries have struggled to stop the bloodshed by calling on Assad to step down and imposing sanctions. But Russia and China have protected Syria from censure by the U.N. Security Council. Many in the opposition say only military aid can stop the killing and bring Assad down, but no countries are openly arming the opposition.
The most potent armed force opposing Assad is the rebel Free Syrian Army, made up largely of army defectors. But the force remains highly decentralized, with its leaders living in neighboring countries, and it cannot create a zone akin to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi that was the center of the successful uprising against Moammar Gadhafi last year.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used Thursday's anniversary to report that more than 8,000 people have died in the past 12 months because of what his spokesman called the Syrian government's decision "to choose violent repression over peaceful political dialogue."
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said a Syrian government-led mission will visit Homs, Hama, Daraa and other cities at the center of the uprising this weekend, accompanied by U.N. and Organization of Islamic Cooperation staff who will assess humanitarian needs.
Thursday's pro-regime rallies were orchestrated by the government to overshadow opposition plans to mark the anniversary. Syria postponed the observance of Arab Teacher Day — a holiday — for one week, apparently to make it easier to bus in state employees and students to the rallies.
Still, the attendance was significant and a reminder that while the opposition movement has attracted an extraordinary backing, Assad still enjoys support.